Want to Save the Peconic Bay? Grow Native Plants

Plant a rain garden to improve the Peconic Bay (and the Peconic Estuary Program will reimburse your costs).

For all you East Enders doing some landscaping this spring, read this first! Consider planting native or “native compatible” plants or installing a rain garden, or rain barrels, and you may be able to get some of your costs reimbursed.

The Peconic Estuary Program (PEP) is a partnership of government, private, public, and academic groups whose mission is to conserve and protect the unique ecosystem that encompasses Peconic Bay. Their Homeowner Rewards Program funds projects within the Peconic Estuary watershed, which includes portions of East Hampton, Southampton, Riverhead, Brookhaven, and Southold towns, as well as all of Shelter Island. (Check this map to see if your location qualifies. Schools, places of worship and other community organizations are eligible, too!)

The aim is to reduce turf and pavement, and increase landscaping that benefits the environment. Almost everything that enters a stormwater drain within the watershed ends up in the bay. Whether it’s natural, like sediment and animal waste, or human-made, like pesticides, motor oil, fertilizer and garbage, it pollutes the water and harms sea life as well as humans. Algae blooms, marine life die-offs and restricted shellfish harvests have all been linked to the presence of excess nutrients and chemicals.

When rainwater is filtered through the soil in rain and native plant gardens, it’s dramatically cleaner. A rain garden is a planted low-lying area that allows rainwater runoff from streets, driveways, parking lots, roofs, walkways and compacted lawns the chance to be absorbed before entering groundwater or the bay. Native plants are naturally adapted to the local climate, soil and water conditions.  They also provide food and habitat for butterflies, birds, beneficial insects and pollinators. And they can provide beauty, food and medicine in your garden!

Many native plants have edible or medicinal functions. Milkweed, serviceberry, New Jersey Tea, elderberry, pawpaw, highbush cranberry, black raspberry, highbush blueberry, black huckleberry, beachplum and Canada wild ginger all provide nourishment for humans, as well as wildlife. Bee balm, echinacea, pussy willow and witchhazel provide medicinal remedies.

Other native plants can be used for beauty, decoration and cut flowers. Meadowsweet, aster, ironweed, blue false indigo, columbine, winterberry, mountain laurel, wild geranium, black eyed susan and blue flag iris fall into this category.

Sarah Schaefer, the PEP program coordinator, hopes more people will take advantage of the program. “Everyone who’s participated has had a very good experience,” she says. “They’re all really appreciative.”

The program is funded through the Environmental Protection Agency and will run through 2018. So far, 30 projects have been completed and more are in progress. Since the program started in 2013, over $12,000 has been allocated to buy plants and rain barrels. Garden projects must be at least 50 square feet to be eligible.

Rain barrels trap roof runoff and prevent it from flowing over paved surfaces and ending up in local waters. The water in the barrels can then be used to water your garden.  Native plants do not need fertilizer, and they are less susceptible to pest attacks and disease. For inspiration, you can go visit the demonstration rain garden on Heidi Behr Way in downtown Riverhead or the native plant garden at the Big Duck in Flanders, both created by PEP with help from volunteers. Or check out this map to find one closer to you.

You can also visit local nurseries to see more native plants up close and personal. Trimble’s Nursery in Cutchogue, Peconic Herb Farm in Calverton, Long Island Natives in Eastport, Long Island Native Plant Initiative in Hampton Bays, Warren’s Nursery in Bridgehampton and Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk all carry a selection of native plants for sale to individuals.

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Lily Dougherty-Johnson is a native North Forker, finally pursuing a lifelong dream of farming. She writes from her home in Greenport, New York, watching out the windows as her chickens misbehave.